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The sound of 1950s & 60s amps

How do get your guitar to sound as if it is being played through a 1950s or 60s era Fender amplifier? 

The obvious choice is to purchase a used Fender amplifier that was made in those decades. Many years ago I purchased a used Princeton Reverb, except it was built in the mid-1970s. It was a great sounding amplifier although I sold it in favor of smaller, lighter, and more versatile amplifiers.

Used amps are becoming harder to find and are expensive. And that’s before you take it to a technician to get it back in shape if it hasn’t been maintained. So the next option is to buy a Fender re-issue. This is a great choice. You don’t get point-to-point wiring as in the originals, but everything will work the way it should. Fender has a whole series of reissues: Princeton Reverb Reissue (PRRI), Deluxe Reverb (DRRI), Twin Reverb Reissue (TRRI), and so on. However tube (valve) amps, though sounding great, have problems including occasionally a shortage of replacement tubes.

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Fender Reissue Amplifiers

Another option taken by many is to use a modeling amp. The Boss Katana line, Fender Mustang series, Blackstar ID: Core amplifiers, Line 6, and others make modeling guitar amps that give you a choice of sounds. There are often 6 or more amplifier models you can choose from and two of them are almost always a Fender Black Panel and a Tweed. This is a great choice if you play many different styles of music, but also good for the home hobbyist or a beginner who doesn’t know what sound they want. Black Panel and Tweed cover a lot of models which may be similar but are not the same. The amplifier manufacturer may tell you the specific amp that’s being modeled, but often they do not. 

Boss Katana Amplifiers

My Quilter Aviator Cub emulates Fender sounds but isn’t a modeling amp. The Cub is designed to match the sounds of a 60 Tweed, a ’62 Blonde, or a ’65 Blackface depending on which of three inputs you choose to plug in your guitar. On my older Quilter Mini-101 head (not the newer Reverb model) the Fender amp selections are simply labeled Tweed and Surf.

Quiltar Aviator Cub

You may already have an amplifier you love but it just isn’t nailing the sound you’re after. FINALLY. Pedals to the rescue.

Sorry to disappoint. Whatever I tell you below has only a small chance of helping you get the sounds you want. There are too pedals and most I’ve never used, maybe never heard. Also, what you think sounds great may be something I hate and what I love, you may hate. You’ve been warned.

 Pedal makers have created both generic Fender-sounding enhancement pedals, generally trying to get the mild overdrive right and amp-in-box pedals that try to give the overall character of an early Fender including overdrive. The third class of stompbox is less about a specific amplifier make and model and geared more towards a nice mild breakup that doesn’t color the sound, often referred to as a transparent overdrive. This is a large category.

Catalinbread Effects makes several pedals that mimic specific Fender amps. Their Formula No. 55 is based on the 5E3 circuit of the Tweed Deluxe. They also make Formula 5F6 which is inspired by a 1950s Bassman. Both aim to get the same overdrive sound as the Fender amps they are based on. 

Caitlinbread Formula No. 55 Pedal

Mad Professor Amplification has a pedal simply named Big Tweedy Drive. They don’t say which specific model they are trying to recreate.

Other makers have made Tweed style pedals but discontinued them, presumably because they weren’t selling enough of them. For example Wampler made the Tweed ‘57  pedal but it is no longer available except used.

One of the best amp-in-a-box designs for a Fender sound was the Tech 21 Blonde from their Character Series of Pedals. These are no longer in production but can be found used on eBay or Reverb

The best alternative is a clone from Joyo which they call their American Sound. I purchased this pedal new for under $40. At the time I was looking for something to give more character to my ZT Lunchbox amp. Does the Joyo American Sound nail the sound of my Princeton Reverb? No. But it does sound great. I still use it on one of my Quilter amplifiers even though the Quilter gets great Fender-sounding overdrive just by increasing the gain. But the Quilters are single-channel amps and sometimes you want to add or boost the gain into overdrive by a footswitch. In addition to Gain and Level, the pedal includes a 3-knob EQ and voice control that varies the spectrum, allegedly from tweed to black panel.

Joyo American Sound

Maybe you don’t need a specific Fender-sounding pedal and just a mild overdrive. There’s no way to cover this category. Would a Boss OD-3 pedal work? Sure. What about the MXR Timmy? Maybe. Or the Wampler Tumnus? Possibly. 

My first pedal was an Ibanez Tube Screamer. I hated it. It didn’t sound pleasant to my ears. I’m in the minority because Tube Screamers and clones are the largest, most popular category of overdrive pedals.

But I do have two other overdrive pedals I like in addition to the American Sound from Joyo. The first is the classic Boss BD-2 Blues Driver. It is in the transparent overdrive category and produces a tone I like a lot.

My other OD pedal is also from Joyo. It is a clone of the Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive (SHOD), which is in turn a recreation of the BFJe Honey Bee overdrive. You can still purchase the Mad Professor SHOD pedal. If you want the Honey Bee or variants, they are now being made by Barefoot FX who has a Reverb store. But if you don’t want to pay boutique prices, the Joyo Sweet Baby Overdrive pedal is a great clone and under $40. Search Youtube for side-by-side comparisons between the Joyo and the Mad Professor pedal.

Mad Professor and Joyo overdrive pedals

The Honey Bee and other above variants, including Joyo, are meant to provide transparent mild overdrive with a touch-sensitive response: turn down the volume on your guitar and you get clean tones, turn up the volume or dig in with your picking and you get overdrive. Just like an early Fender amplifier. 

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